Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll'

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'Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll.'
'Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Tina Turner is on the cover of Maureen Mahon's new book Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (buy now). How could she not be? She's the Queen of Rock and Roll! Great. Okay, now name ten more Black women rockers.

Having a hard time? That's exactly Mahon's point. Turner has been firmly canonized in rock history...though even in her case, not so firmly that she's not still waiting for induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Getting to this point, Mahon argues, took decades of concerted effort by Turner to be recognized as a legitimate participant in a genre that votes artists like Green Day and Pearl Jam into the Rock Hall in their first year of eligibility. The only Black woman inducted into the Rock Hall in her first year of eligibility was Cynthia Robinson, as a member of Sly and the Family Stone. Even Aretha Franklin, often touted as the first woman inducted into the hall, had to wait for her second ballot.

The tentpoles of Mahon's fascinating book are the two Black women perhaps most often mentioned with respect to rock music specifically: Turner and Big Mama Thornton, the latter being one of the early artists who cohered a distinctive sound for the genre that became known as rock and roll, later serving as a direct inspiration for Elvis Presley ("Hound Dog") and Janis Joplin ("Ball and Chain"). Between Thornton in the '50s and Turner's leather-clad '80s comeback — the feat that finally saw her shake the "R&B" categorization and be recognized as a rocker — there were numerous Black women who strove, succeeded, and then were largely erased from the narrative of a genre that became very specifically focused on white men.

Music history didn't have to be this way. As Mahon notes, in 1963 Billboard actually stopped publishing an R&B chart because it seemed that with the rise of rock and roll, the category formerly known as "race music" was redundant. The hiatus lasted less than two years; in 1965, the R&B chart came back. What happened? Beatlemania. Instead of Black music played by African American artists, white American audiences went gaga for a version of that music played by white British artists. Black American artists who wanted to be part of the rock world now had to make terms with Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton.

The relationship between British Invasion rockers and African American women forms the basis of one of the book's most fascinating chapters, "Negotiating 'Brown Sugar.'" As Mahon notes, the unnamed subject of "Brown Sugar" may be the second most famous Black woman in rock music. Whether or not there was any one woman who personally and directly inspired the song, Jagger — along with many other white male rockers on both sides of the Atlantic — had extensive personal and professional relationships with Black women. Mahon's chapter zeroes in on three specific women: groupie Devon Wilson, stage star Marsha Hunt, and singer Claudia Lennear. All three found themselves subjects of sexual fascination, but instead of elevating their own complex stories in their own voices, history just put "Brown Sugar" on repeat.

Other chapters in Black Diamond Queens explore similar patterns: gifted women who come into the rock world understanding they need to tailor their approach to suit white gatekeepers, then succeed to some degree only to find the upper reaches of stardom (even the middle reaches, in some cases) closed to them; and to be constantly required to, ironically, re-certify their eligibility for meaningful participation or recognition in a genre created by Black artists.

In her case study of Turner, Mahon emphasizes that the singer's eventual emergence as "the Queen of Rock and Roll" wasn't solely due to her talent, but due to a long and diligent campaign to force listeners and tastemakers to connect the dots between herself and the white men being lionized as the kings of rock and roll. She cut "River Deep - Mountain High" for Phil Spector; her husband Ike had nothing to do with that track, writes Mahon, who suggests that Tina deserves far more credit for the sound of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, which is commonly portrayed as an Ike project where Tina was only the voice and the face. Tina herself may have downplayed her role in the Revue, since the idea that it was fundamentally Ike's show helped divorce her from not only the man but the genre of R&B.

After covering "Proud Mary" and "Come Together" (among numerous other rock songs); after appearing in Tommy and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome; after recording duets with David Bowie and Bryan Adams; after opening for Rod Stewart and the Rolling Stones; after enlisting Mark Knopfler and Jeff Beck to contribute to Private Dancer; and after assiduously purging her band and stage act of any visual or musical signifiers that would link her to R&B...then, and only then, did Tina earn both chart success and rock cred.

It's no knock on Turner's enormous talent to say there might have been other contenders for the "Queen of Rock and Roll" crown if it didn't require such a concerted effort — and such willingness to consort with cultural colonizers — even to be considered a contestant. Adding insult to injury, Turner then found her Blackness questioned by the likes of Little Richard, who said, "Tina got what she wanted, but lost what she had." Richard, who tried and failed to adapt to the post-Beatlemania landscape before ultimately settling into his golden-oldies niche, might have summoned more sympathy for an artist who worked tirelessly to reinvent herself while facing the multiplicative oppressions of racism and sexism.

Two of Mahon's chapters focus on groups of women who made an enormous impact but were denied proper recognition — in part because the music industry couldn't see what any attentive ears could hear, which is that they were making pop rock. The Shirelles' vocal harmonies helped shape the sound of the British Invasion, but rock history consigned them to the reductive bin of pre-Supremes girl groups. Labelle were pioneers with three distinct, strong Black voices making music at the intersection of rock and soul while flaunting their confident sexuality just like Janis Joplin or Marvin Gaye. Rolling Stone, though, said they should stop "straining for Relevance" the way Aretha Franklin allegedly was in, say, covering "The Weight." Those crunchy electric guitars? "Ill-suited."

Labelle's later success with the proto-disco "Lady Marmalade" earned them well-deserved fame, but at the cost of some of their original female-forward energy. Mahon lays it out: for all the virtues of "Lady Marmalade," its title character was "kin to Brown Sugar, the sexually available black woman. Tacky, perhaps, but also a familiar, digestible figure." Uncoincidentally, it was a male producer (Allen Toussaint) who engineered the group's transformation. The one who called the song "tacky" was Patti LaBelle herself.

According to the meta-rating site Best Ever Albums, Labelle's best album, 1974's Nightbirds, is the 23,905th best album of all time. That's over 15,000 spots lower than Smash Mouth's Astro Lounge. Meaningless, in a sense — any registered member can vote in the rankings — but still, an indicator of just how profoundly marginalized even relatively successful Black women artists like the members of Labelle are within discourse about the history of rock and pop music. Mahon's book is an essential corrective to that discourse, not just telling these artists' stories but examining how achieving recognition, for these women, requires spinning five plates at once.

What if the story of rock as we know it made more room for women like Betty Davis? Mahon devotes a chapter to that extraordinary artist, who "wrote her lyrics and music, created musical arrangements, and produced many of the tracks on the albums she released between 1973 and 1976. The gorgeous woman with a towering Afro celebrated Black women's sexuality in all its authentic complexity: in her songs, as Mahon notes, Davis wasn't a sexual object, but rather the subject who expressed her own desires.

Her surname came from Miles Davis, to whom she was briefly married in the late '60s. She influenced his own music from that era, he acknowledged, and launched her own solo career as well as writing for artists like the Commodores. Her records from that era are extraordinary — she pushed the subject of women's agency farther than peers like Joni Mitchell and Carole King, notes Mahon, combining her songs with electrifying live performances of which, incredibly, no video whatsoever survives.

Now 75, Davis has been retired for over four decades, having abandoned a record industry that never knew how to promote her; she never charted, considered too rock for funk and too funk for rock. Around the time she stepped away from music, she ironically cited Tina Turner as an example of an artist the industry could "peg," while describing Turner's R&B image from the Ike and Tina days. Turner kept working it, climbing that white rock Rushmore, but Davis was done.

When Mahon interviewed Davis, the author asked whether the musician ever faced any "particular challenges because you were a black woman." Davis's response? "No."

Maybe, Mahon speculates, the artist "simply had a mindset that did not view what she was doing as extraordinary." Unfortunately, the record industry did...and not in a good way. Fortunately, Mahon is here to share the story of Davis's career, and the careers of dozens of other African American women whose decisions to make rock music and seek success in a segregated market should not have been extraordinary at all. As it happened, their decisions were extraordinary, and so was their music.

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Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

February 25: This Thing Called Life: Prince's Odyssey On + Off the Record by Neal Karlen (buy now)

March 4: Nobody Ever Asked Me About the Girls: Women, Music and Fame by Lisa Robinson

March 11: Gorillaz Almanac

March 18: Nothin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion by Tom Beaujour and Richard Bienstock


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